Disclaimer: A different version of this blog appeared in The Conversation
There’s a freshness of purpose to this episode from its very first moments, as a new aspect ratio immediately gives way to remediating YouTube, with Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole) vlogging about the “greatest woman” he’s “ever met”. When the Doctor’s gender-shifting has been such a topic of press coverage, it’s an opening that teases the viewer, playing with expectations from the outset. However, as we discover, it is Grace (Sharon D. Clarke) that Ryan’s talking about, not the Doctor. And it is Grace who ultimately “falls to Earth”, just as the Doctor does, marking them as characters who are repeatedly paralleled in Chris Chibnall’s script. Grace runs toward danger and aliens as if she has a Time Lord’s level of bravery, and the Doctor eventually takes Grace’s place by watching over Ryan’s bike-riding efforts. But for the Doctor to step into Grace’s shoes, this episode needs to be marked by tragedy.
Given recent debates around ‘fridging’, and the trope of a female figure (often a girlfriend) who is killed in order to motivate and underpin a male character’s angst-filled storyline, the loss of Grace feels like one potential misstep for the early Chibnall/Whittaker era – a brilliant woman of colour being displaced by a white Time Lord hero. This element of series 11’s set-up will provoke much discussion across the coming weeks, I am sure.
New showrunner Chibnall is preoccupied with overturning expected meanings in ‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’; Ryan assumes that the mysterious entity moving through a Sheffield train has killed someone (a classic Who set-up), only for the Doctor to counsel that, no, it was more likely shock. Later, the Doctor comes up with an ‘Alien vs Predator’-style explanation of events, only to accept that she too has got things wrong. Chibnall even wrong foots viewers by depicting the character of Karl as an obvious “red shirt” – I know, that’s the wrong TV series – only to make him more “randomly” central to the narrative than convention might dictate.
“New can be scary”, the Doctor cautions her latest friends, whilst reflecting on the post-regeneration fact that she’s become “a stranger to myself.” And finally there’s a mission statement of sorts, as she hails the alien ‘Tim Shaw’ with an inspirational account of transformative self-identity: “we’re all capable of the most incredible change. We can evolve, while still staying true to who we are. We can honour who we’ve been and choose who we want to be next.”
‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’ is a story preoccupied with gender – but probably not the one you were expecting. In a way, it’s less about the Doctor’s newly embodied femininity (which gets a few great one-liners) and more about wayward masculinity. ‘Tim Shaw’, the Stenza warrior, is a “big blue cheat” who knows he’s “unworthy” and doesn’t feel he can ascend to leadership without the help of illegal data-gathering, whilst “Karl from the train” intones inspirational quotes about how he is “special”, “confident”, and “brave” when he is plainly none of the above. Even his job as a crane operator is attributed to the fact that Skylark Building Services is his “Dad’s company” – patriarchal lineage being shown up as pretty dysfunctional. As the Doctor observes, “if you want something doing…” – and she’s the one who leaps into decisive action.
We also encounter a moment of misogynistic banter when Graham (Bradley Walsh) asks a friend if there’s been “any talk of weird stuff, or strange creatures out tonight?”, only to receive the response: “My wife’s out with her mates at karaoke, if that’s what you mean.” Graham’s reaction shows that we’re meant to feel uneasy about such banal equations of monstrosity and femininity, but it’s the monstrous-masculine that Chibnall’s plotting brings to the fore. Karl represents the undercutting of an ‘emotional journey’ – he’s still mouthing useless ‘inspirational’ platitudes whilst doing the wrong thing at the end, rather than being sentimentally elevated into the humanist significance of everyone-is-important. And win-at-all-costs ‘Tim Shaw’ is so intent on ascending to the role of leader that he simply won’t listen to the Doctor.
There is also, arguably, a greater sense of male vulnerability in this story than ever before for Doctor Who: we have the story of Ryan’s dyspraxia to follow in coming stories, and it seems unlikely that Graham’s cancer treatment will be mentioned just this once. Indeed, the decision to include this level of real-world drama strikes me as a genuinely brave move for a family entertainment show, one that should be applauded for depicting life’s challenges. This is a deftly grounded, challenging view of Doctor Who, one which wears its humanity not via reassuring neoliberal tales of self-celebration but instead through a (public service) sense of needing to “work through” powerful challenges to self-identity.
And so the travails of contemporary masculinity, rather than the spurious ‘issue’ of a female Doctor, are shown to recur here. Female characters face rather different challenges. Yasmin is shown to be a strong, resourceful woman who wants to make her way in the world; she’s obviously far more capable than her male superior in the police force will concede.
“If you want different”, then this story samples and remixes Doctor Who to great effect. Jodie Whittaker doesn’t put a foot wrong, and with a convincing group of new friends, an unexpected cliffhanger, and a showrunner unafraid to partly satirise Karl’s ‘emotional character arc’ as well as brave enough to incorporate cancer, chemo and dyspraxia, this looks to be a long-running show in safe hands. Male heroics will no doubt earn an ongoing place in the new Whoniverse, as the likes of Ryan and Graham can be shaped, inspired and re-made by the transformational zest of Whittaker’s Doctor, whose catchphrase could yet prove to be a spirited “oi!”. Unlike the Stenza warrior Tim Shaw and Sheffield worrier Karl, Graham and Ryan have an opportunity to learn first-hand how “we’re all capable of the most incredible change”.
Sheffield steel meets Skelmanthorpe shatterer (of glass ceilings): the Doctor is in.
Matt Hills is Professor of Media and Film at the University of Huddersfield, and co-Director of the Centre for Participatory Culture based there. He is the author of six monographs including Fan Cultures (Routledge 2002) and Triumph of a Time Lord (I.B. Tauris 2010), and has published more than a hundred book chapters/journal articles on topics such as media fandom, cult film/TV, and transmedia. His latest sole-authored book is Doctor Who: The Unfolding Event (Palgrave 2015), and he recently co-edited Transatlantic Television Drama for Oxford University Press (forthcoming 2019). He is also a co-commissioning editor for the ‘Transmedia’ book series at Amsterdam University Press, and was an invited keynote speaker for the first ever ‘Academic Track’ at Gallifrey One this year.